"The Preachers chiefly shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe and believe, but that which is agreeable to the Doctrine of the Old Testament and the New, and that which the Catholick Fathers and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that Doctrine." A proposed canon of Elizabeth I, 1571

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Location: Bedford, Texas, United States

I am a presbyter in the diocese of Fort Worth, Texas (Anglican Church in North America). I serve as Chaplain at St. Vincent's School and as a canon of St. Vincent's Cathedral Church in Bedford, Texas. In addition to my parish duties and teaching Religion classes in the school I am also the Middle School Social Studies teacher.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

"O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded"

Crucifix reliquary with evangelists' symbols, Anglo-Saxon, late 10th century. Posted by Hello

I know it is Advent, but I have been thinking rather a lot about the Passion of our Lord lately. Actually, I have been thinking about Mel Gibson’s portrayal of the crucifixion in his film, “The Passion of the Christ,” to be specific. Television advertisements for the DVD of that film are now running frequently in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, bringing images from the movie to mind on a regular basis. I actually saw it for the first time on Ash Wednesday, its opening day, when five of my friends and I saw it in Chicago after evening Mass. Those friends of mine are all committed “Nicene Christians” (RC, evangelical, and ‘classical Anglican’), and seeing “The Passion” with them on that somber day was a deeply moving experience—almost like going on a pilgrimage. And as a work of cinema I found the film rather well done. But one side effect that I did not expect was the way watching the movie changed my perception of the iconography of the cross. In the film Christ is flogged so severely that he is literally flayed alive. By the time he is nailed to the cross, Jesus has very little intact skin left on his torso and is covered in blood. This might not be too far from the historical truth. The Romans could certainly be exceedingly cruel in their executions. And undoubtedly “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men” that we would be astonished to see him (Isa 52:14). The horrible appearance of the Lord hanging on the cross in the movie certainly adds to the emotional impact of the crucifixion scene. But very little of the great iconographic tradition of the eastern or western Churches has gone so far in depicting the revolting details of Christ’s death. After seeing the film and returning to my room in DDH I gazed up at the Byzantine-style crucifix over my bed and found it “passion-less.” It was virtually bloodless, except for a small stream gushing from the piercing in the Lord’s side and one drop falling from each pierced hand. Indeed, Jesus appeared almost elegant in his extreme humility. A cross that meant a great deal to me just a few hours before now left me cold and disappointed. Of course, many other crucifixes through the ages, including the more than thousand-year-old one from England shown above, have followed in that same aesthetic tradition. It took more than a week before that Byzantine cross regained its normal place in my prayer life as Gibson’s “Passion” began to fade in my imagination. Now, looking back on it, I think my response to the film was rather like my response to my first attendance at a charismatic Eucharist at an AMIA parish in the Chicago suburbs. At that time I found the worship to be exhilarating and vivid. In comparison the High Mass at the Church of the Ascension the lively, “Spirit-filled” worship seemed much more immediately and authentic. I am sure many people find such worship to be meaningful for similar reasons. But being the kind of person I am this feeling didn’t last. For me the quieter, more “stately” aesthetic of traditional High Mass or classic Christian iconography has more “staying power.” This older, more deliberate way of worshipping in song, liturgy, and image has stood the test of time and most certainly ought to be propagated into the future. This is not to say that the Gibson film and more contemporary worship styles have no place. For other people they might provide an invaluable aid in taking the Gospel to heart and lifting that heart up to God in praise and thanksgiving. But as for me, “Give me that ol’ time religion.” But enough of me. Have a blessed Advent.


Blogger Julian said...

Good reflections. Where do you get all these cool pictures of stuff?

12:51 PM  
Blogger texanglican said...

Hi, MB! Well, some of the photos come from the Internet, such as the Ruthwell Cross below. But the crucifix above is from a book on Anglo-Saxon England. I scanned it and posted it using "BloggerBot." Not bad, eh?

2:20 PM  

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